Thousands flee fighting in Syria to neighbouring Lebanon

Briefing Notes, 19 November 2013

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Adrian Edwards to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 19 November 2013, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

In Syria, an estimated 6,000 people have fled their homes in Qarah, making their way over the border into eastern Lebanon. Humanitarian partners have been on the ground in Lebanon since last Friday working with the Ministry of Social Affairs and local authorities to cope with this influx.

The spark for the displacement is the reported escalation in violence in Qarah and surrounding villages. Refugees have told us that they spent days living in underground shelters before deciding to flee. A family of ten told us they had crammed into a single car on Saturday evening to flee as the situation had become "unbearable".

Most of the newly arrived refugees are now in Arsal, in north-east Lebanon. Arsal, which lies not far from the border area, is home to a population of some 60,000 people, including already prior to the latest influx 20,000 registered refugees.

Some 100 families transited through Arsal to nearby villages including Jdeide, Fakeha and Al-Ain, while local authorities told us that approximately 300 families returned to Yabrud in Syria on Sunday.

UNHCR and its partners have contingency plans in place for these sudden movements and indeed for larger numbers should more cross. There are concerns that on-going violence in the vicinity of Qarah and central Qalamoun towns could force more to flee Syria into the already stretched east-Bekaa area.

Over 1,000 of the newly arrived Syrian families in Arsal have registered with the local municipality in the past three days and been provided with emergency assistance. This work is still on-going. The assistance includes food parcels, blankets, mattresses, kitchen sets and hygiene kits.

Sheltering the large numbers of new arrivals remains a challenge. Newly arrived refugees have been directed to four temporary collective shelters in public halls and mosques. Up to 80 families have found shelter in informal settlements while others have set up makeshift dwellings in unfinished buildings or are staying with local families. None of these provide a long term option.

UNHCR with its partners is ready to provide further shelter options if the government approves land for use. In the meantime all is being done to ensure that the temporary locations are protected against the elements and provide some warmth to the refugees.

Access to clean water and sanitation is a concern. Partners are providing latrines and water tanks to alleviate this situation and have deployed mobile medical units which are providing immediate health services. The Ministry of Public Health and partners have provided vaccinations and Vitamin A supplements. Pregnant women and war-wounded refugees are also receiving immediate assistance.

For more information on this topic, please contact:

  • In Beirut, Roberta Russo on mobile +961 71 910 320
  • Dana Sleiman on mobile+961 3 827 323
  • In Geneva, Adrian Edwards on mobile +41 79 557 9120
  • Dan McNorton on mobile +41 79 217 3011
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Thousands of desperate Syrian refugees seek safety in Turkey after outbreak of fresh fighting

Renewed fighting in northern Syria since June 3 has sent a further 23,135 refugees fleeing across the border into Turkey's southern Sanliurfa province. Some 70 per cent of these are women and children, according to information received by UNHCR this week.

Most of the new arrivals are Syrians escaping fighting between rival military forces in and around the key border town of Tel Abyad, which faces Akcakale across the border. They join some 1.77 million Syrian refugees already in Turkey.

However, the influx also includes so far 2,183 Iraqis from the cities of Mosul, Ramadi and Falujjah.

According to UNHCR field staff most of the refugees are exhausted and arrive carrying just a few belongings. Some have walked for days. In recent days, people have fled directly to Akcakale to escape fighting in Tel Abyad which is currently reported to be calm.

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The birth of triplets on New Year's Day in eastern Lebanon's Bekaa Valley should have been cause for celebration, but there was a terrible cost attached. The newborns' mother, Syrian refugee Amal, died shortly after giving birth, never having a chance to see her boys.

In a twist of fate, Amal's own mother had died giving birth to her. Amal, whose name means "hope," had been excited at the prospect of having triplets and had been confident about the birth. She named the three boys before they were born - Riyadh, Ahmed and Khaled - and told her husband to take good care of them in case anything happened to her.

The weather in the Bekaa Valley seemed to reflect the torment of Amal's family. Less than a week after she died, the worst winter storm in years swept through the region bringing freezing temperatures and dumping huge amounts of snow across the Bekaa. And so this family, far from home, grieve for their loss as they struggle to keep their precious new members safe and warm. Photojournalist Andrew McConnell, on assignment for UNHCR, visited the family.

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A fierce winter storm swept through the Middle East this week bringing icy temperatures, high winds and heavy snow. In Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, more than 400,000 refugees have been enduring freezing conditions since snow levels not seen in many years arrived. Refugee accommodation in the Bekaa ranges from abandoned buildings to garages, sheds, apartments and informal settlements. Conditions are most difficult in the settlements, with roofing on makeshift shelters liable to collapse under the weight of the snow.

Although a great deal of winter aid has been provided, UNHCR remains concerned. Despite the agency's best efforts, the situation in Lebanon remains precarious for refugees, given the extremely poor conditions in which they live and the scattered nature of the population. It is a constant challenge to ensure that refugees across more than 1,700 localities remain safe and warm during the winter months and have sufficient resources to withstand severe storms.

Photojournalist Andrew McConnell spent two days in the Bekaa Valley, documenting the situation for UNHCR.

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